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Authors: William W. Johnstone,J. A. Johnstone

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BOOK: Target Response
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Plastering his flesh with handfuls of black mud, smearing it over every inch of exposed skin, had won Kilroy some relief from plaguing insect pests. He had caught a few blessed hours of fitful sleep wedged into a treetop.

Daybreak. He’d expended his assault rifle’s last rounds escaping the ambush in the valley. No matter. He still had his .44 Magnum handgun and survival knife to take the war to the enemy.

The flooded forest was ideal for bushwhacking; it made it so easy for lone troops to become separated from their fellows. A hand from behind clapped over a foeman’s mouth to stifle his cries, a razor-edged knife blade cutting a throat—and the deed was done.

The first Nigerian soldier he’d slain had furnished him with a rifle and ammunition to further fuel the ongoing fight. As the long, murderous day had worn on and their numbers decreased, the men of Tayambo’s elite bodyguard had grown unsure of who was hunting whom.

Night fell, and with it had come teams of torch-bearing boatmen to ply the flooded forest and bring him to bay. Kilroy had welcomed their advent; a motorized dinghy was his ticket out of the swamp.

Hours had passed before the proper opportunity to strike presented itself. A lone boat separated from its fellows, taking a course that would deliver itself into his hands.

He had raced to get ahead of it and intercept it, jumping from matted tussocks to gnarled mangrove root works, climbing trees and crawling out to the ends of their branches to leap to his next solid stepping-stone through blackwater channels. He had lost a rifle along the way.

But he had reached the critical junction point ahead of the boat, whose bow-mounted torch glowing fuzzily through green mist heralded its arrival from a long way off.

Kilroy had scaled a mangrove tree, climbing out along a branch that overhung the channel. It had groaned with creakings and sagged dangerously under his weight but held. Crouched on a crooked limb, hidden by masses of leafy boughs, he had waited with drawn gun and a hunter’s terrible patience for the boat to arrive.

As it neared, he had drawn a bead on the spotter in the bow and shot him in the heart. A second shot had taken the steersman above the eyebrows…and the boat was Kilroy’s.

He now moved to take control of the boat, a type familiar to him. It was the same basic model of slim, shallow-draft craft used in swamplands around the world, from Central Europe’s Pripet Marshes to the archipelagoes of Malaysia.

The engine was about the size and horsepower of a lawn mower motor. The tiller was fitted with a handgrip throttle controlling the rate of fuel flow.

The boat nosed against a cluster of half-submerged mangrove roots, bumping into them. Kilroy’s form unfolded, moving aft.

Ojo the steersman sat slumped against the stern’s square-edged transom, dead hand still clutching the tiller. A .44 slug had taken him above the eyes, blowing off the top of his skull. His head was tilted back over the top of the stern board, shattered cranium oozing blood and brain matter into dark waters.

Kilroy pried open the steersman’s fingers, unwinding them from the handle of the tiller. He elbowed the corpse to one side, careful not to upset the boat.

The bow was snagged in a knotted tangle of mangrove roots, its progress temporarily halted. The motor idled, sputtering, laying down a plume of blue-gray exhaust that mixed and merged with the green mist.

Kilroy made quite a sight. His shirt was in rags, and his baggy pants were in little better condition. Strapped across his upper body was a shoulder harness with a holstered .44 under his left arm. He still retained his sheath knife and canteen.

From head to toe his body was covered with a coating of stinking black mud, protection against the hordes of omnipresent swarming insects. Without it they would have eaten him alive or driven him mad.

As it was he was perhaps not at the moment what could have been called entirely sane.

The mud pack also provided good camouflage. Only the whites of his eyes, his teeth bared in a snarl, of which he was unaware, and the palms of his hands and undersides of his fingers broke the dark uniformity of his mud-daubed form.

Using Rasheed’s pole, he pushed off from the mangrove roots, freeing the boat’s snagged bow. He steered it into the middle of the channel.

The throttle was already set low; Kilroy left it alone, fearing to throttle down any farther lest the motor stall and he be unable to restart it. He pushed the tiller handle downward, causing the engine to tilt forward and raise the driveshaft and propeller clear of the water.

The boat now drifted forward, drawn solely by the sluggish current. The two shots with which he had downed the boatmen had sounded with thunderous crashings.

In their aftermath, the cries and howls of the swamp had become muted and stilled. Even the ferocious whirring and buzzing of the insect swarms had temporarily subsided to a hush.

Kilroy listened for the answering call of man-made sounds: gunshots, shouts, or boat motors. Anything that would indicate the nearness of other boatmen searching for him. No such noises were to be heard.

It seemed he had slipped pursuit for the moment.

He turned out the steersman’s pockets but found nothing of value. He hoisted the body over the side, easing it into the black water.

The corpse bobbed around, rolling so that it floated facedown, its shattered skull upturned. An arm got snagged on a mangrove root.

The drifting boat began to pull away and presently left the cadaver far behind. Kilroy took note of the two assault rifles on board and eagerly examined them. They were dirtier than he liked but nonetheless in decent working order. With them he also found a canvas ammo bag filled with spare magazines.

Kilroy thrilled to rising exultation. Armed with this much firepower, he’d raise merry hell breaking the ring with which the opposition had encircled him.

Careful to avoid disturbing the balance of the low-sided boat, Kilroy moved forward.

Rasheed the spotter lay faceup with his back on the bottom of the boat and his long legs tangled up in the bow. His eyes were open; they’d rolled back in the sockets so only the whites showed. His mouth gaped open. Flies were already buzzing around inside it. They really flocked to the hole that the .44 slug had punched through his chest.

Kilroy hooked his hands under the dead man’s arms, hoisting him up and draping his upper body across the port gunwale. He drew the panga from its sheath, holding it up to the torchlight and eyeing it. The long blade was a well-tempered piece of steel with a keen edge. He could put it to good use should the occasion arise. He decided to keep it, and the sheath, too. He worked the scabbard and straps free of the body.

The corpse he didn’t need. It would follow the steersman’s into the water.

Kilroy wrestled around with it, positioning it preparatory to dumping it overboard. Hard work, made doubly difficult by the need to take care to avoid tipping the boat, forcing him to expend a lot of energy he could ill afford to spare.

The placid waters of the channel began to swell and seethe with agitation. The boat swayed from side to side.

Something bumped against the bottom of the hull, nearly causing Kilroy to tumble overboard. He saved himself by gripping the gunwales. For an instant he thought he’d collided with a submerged log or rock. The turbulence increased, whipping up the surface of the water.

Suddenly something emerged from below, thrusting an enormous wedge-shaped snout into view.

The snout divided in two, opening on the fulcrum of a massive pair of jaws, revealing a stinking, gaping maw whose upper and lower halves were lined with double rows of jagged teeth. Each tooth was roughly the size and shape of a flint arrowhead. Topping the far end of the snout were two golden, glittering orbs.

Crocodile! Kilroy had dodged plenty such during his time in the swamp but this brute was one of the biggest he’d yet seen.

It closed its jaws on the head and shoulders of Rasheed, hauled him over the side. The boat tipped hard to port, nearly capsizing before the corpse came free of it. Rolling its massive bulk to one side, the crocodile submerged, dragging the body underwater. The wave generated by its movements rocked the boat again.

Kilroy lunged for the stern, gripping the tiller and levering the driveshaft and propeller into the water—not too deep, for fear of disturbing the thrashing crocodile in its feeding frenzy.

Opening the throttle, Kilroy powered the boat away from the croc and its prize and out of rough waters.

THREE

The command gunboat sat in the Kondo River near its junction with the Rada River. It was the dead-night hour between midnight and dawn.

Measuring thirty feet long from stem to stern, the low-slung motor launch carried a crew of six men. The sleek, trim craft was powered by a pair of powerful inboard motors.

The black-hulled launch had white-topped gunwales and a white foredeck. A name on the stern transom had been hastily painted over. The coat of paint obscured but could not totally hide the word beneath it:

MYRMEX.

This was not the boat’s name but rather the name of the company that owned it. MYRMEX was a private security firm that specialized in supplying auxiliary support and infrastructure to the armed forces of various countries that contracted its services.

It was a Non-Governmental Organization, one of the privately owned NGOs that in recent years had come to perform services previously handled by national military establishments in war-torn areas, such as handling construction projects, supplying food and fresh water to the troops, providing private armed guard security for embassies and corporate regional operations, and the like.

Originally U.S. based, MYRMEX had relocated its corporate headquarters to the tiny principality of Lichtenstein to evade congressional investigations into massive fraud, corruption, and graft in its dealings with the Pentagon’s efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and certain pro-American Gulf emirates.

MYRMEX was deeply involved in Nigerian political intrigue. And why not? Nigeria’s 36-billion-barrel oil reserve made that country a power player on the global chessboard.

Some MYRMEX operations were more sensitive than others. Its dealings with Nigerian Defense Minister Derek Tayambo were best kept clandestine. That’s why the MYRMEX logo had been painted over wherever it appeared on the gunboat. The launch’s identifying registry numbers had also been painted over.

However, the haste with which the boat had been pressed into service had resulted in a sloppy job. In moderate light, the black block letters spelling out MYRMEX in various places on the boat could be seen through the thin coating of paint covering them.

This was of no great concern to the boat’s masters, however. The nature of the launch’s current assignment was such that the only individuals who might have been able to make use of the fact that this was a MYRMEX operation were the very persons at whom that mission had been targeted:

Kilroy and Raynor.

A third of the way aft from the bow the launch’s foredeck gave way to a rectangular open compartment. At its head two bucket seats faced an instrument panel. One was for the boat’s pilot, the other for its forward gunner. The pilot sat on the left, the gunner on the right. They could see over the foredeck to the way ahead. A clear Plexiglas windscreen curved across the foredeck, shielding the control cockpit from any water spray kicked up by a rapid transit.

A .50 caliber machine gun was mounted on the foredeck with its handle-mounted trigger buttons and cartridge belt loading mechanism within easy reach of the gunner. It was set on a swivel post that raised the barrel above the top of the low, curving windscreen, allowing a clear, near-180-degree traverse.

A second such machine gun stood at the stern, mounted on a vertical post that required the operator to stand while using the weapon.

Sandbags were secured by lines to the tops of the gunwales to provide some protection against enemy fire.

The gunboat was not under fire now. Or in action. It lay at anchor in the middle of the Kondo River.

After being joined by the Rada, the Kondo flowed southeast for several miles before curving due south to empty into the sea. The Kondo was broad, sluggish, muddy, and murky. The water was about fifteen feet deep in midstream where the gunboat was anchored.

The launch stood tethered to the river bottom a hundred yards or so east of where the Kondo was joined by the Rada, to avoid the mild chop and turbulence generated by the junction. The boat commanded a view of both rivers and their surroundings.

The company of Nigerian troops was encamped on a point of land on the right, east bank at the mouth of the Rada. The lights of their campfires showed as patches of blurry red and yellow glare flickering behind a screen of the river’s greenish mist.

This was the main base of Minister Tayambo’s elite bodyguard corps. Much of the force was on night duty patrolling the perimeter and interior of the swamp.

A number of small, squat, shallow-draft, fiberglass-body motorboats with squared-off bows and four-man crews coursed up and down along the shoreline. Their searchlights were lances of brightness spearing through the steamy darkness of the night. They paid special attention to the channels and rivulets flowing out of the swamp into the Kondo and Rada.

Squads of foot soldiers were posted along the shoreline. They were supposed to be on patrol, but at this late hour most of them were either drunk or sleeping on duty.

The gunboat’s searchlights were now dark. The launch was lit by lines of running lights, their glow augmented by several kerosene lamps hung around the compartment to provide some illumination.

From here Ward Thurlow directed the manhunt for Kilroy. He didn’t handle the nuts and bolts of the operation, not really; that chore was left to his executive officer, Colonel Krentz.

Also on board the boat were Nigerian bodyguard corps members Sergeant Diki Ajani and the gunboat’s permanent crew of Sesto, the boat pilot; Hamid, the forward gunner; and T’gai, the stern gunner.

Thurlow made his home in Alexandria, Virginia, and had never missed it more heartily than he did now. Officially assigned to a minor post at the American embassy at Lagos and thereby protected by diplomatic immunity, he was in reality a CIA agent and field operative, one of the agency’s up-and-coming bright young staffers.

Oil-rich Nigeria was an important posting, its attractions steadily increasing as Washington’s current administration’s power and prestige steadily sank around the world.

The toxic combination of a weak, feckless, indecisive president and a do-nothing Congress, compounded by a dismal economic climate brought about by the malfeasance of an unholy alliance of corrupt politicians, bankers, and Wall Street speculators, had brought a once great nation to its knees.

Distrusting an American chief executive whose word and will were as feeble as the declining dollar, the petroleum producers of the Middle East were increasingly receptive to the blandishments of the People’s Republic of China—Red China, currency-rich in no small part due to the funds of U.S. corporations outsourcing vital manufacturing jobs from America to the PRC.

Has history ever witnessed such a blatant example of the shortsighted greed of a few being allowed to destroy the vital sinews of a rich and dynamic nation?

Ward Thurlow thought he knew which way the wind was blowing and had trimmed his sails accordingly, forsaking his loyalty to his native land and the CIA, which employed him, to covertly sell his services to the corporate globalists and financiers who literally and figuratively were selling the United States short.

That was why Thurlow was enduring another miserable night in a boat on the Kondo, spear-heading a seek-and-destroy mission against two men who had dared to defy America’s would-be hidden masters.

Ward Thurlow, thirty, was slim, boyish, with short dark hair and a clean-shaven, fine-featured patrician face. Three days and nights out in the field in the Vurukoo delta had left him somewhat the worse for wear.

His face was now drawn, haggard. He needed a shave. Most of all, he needed a bath. He stank. His sweat-damp clothes hung on him like wet laundry. They stank, too. At least out here on the water the insect population was slightly less pestiferous than on land, he told himself.

The time was a few minutes short of three a.m. By all rights Thurlow should have been fast asleep in the comfort of his coolly air-conditioned quarters at the American embassy compound. A soft mattress, clean sheets—

Thinking of the comforts presently denied him, he sighed. Here he was in the cramped quarters of a crowded launch, suffering what he thought of as unspeakable torments.

Simply because one U.S. Army son of a bitch named Joseph Kilroy didn’t have the common sense, the decency, to lie down and die the way he was supposed to.

Ward Thurlow looked around, surveying his surroundings with eyes accustomed to the wanly lit interior of the boat.

Sergeant Ajani sat wedged in the portside quarter of the compartment, head bowed, eyes closed, snoring. The big bastard had the professional soldier’s ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. Thurlow would have liked to have kicked him awake, but he didn’t dare. Truth to tell, he was afraid of Ajani.

The man was a stone killer who radiated the threat of imminent menace, despite—or possibly because of—his outward seeming affability and good humor. Even Colonel Krentz, the cold-blooded South African mercenary who served as Thurlow’s intermediary, relaying the rogue CIA agent’s orders to the Nigerian troops that Minister Tayambo had put at his disposal, was careful to address the huge, hulking sergeant with studied politeness.

Ajani’s true character was shown by his attitude toward the metal cannister secured opposite him. The others on board, cold-blooded Colonel Krentz included, gave it a wide berth, studiously avoiding it whenever possible.

Not Ajani. The cannister and its contents bothered him not at all. That was why he was able to sleep and snore peacefully despite its nearness to him in the stern.

The drum-shaped metal container was about the size of a five-gallon can, with a lid on top and a pair of handles at the side. It was secured in place by a length of rope that ran through the handles and was lashed in place to a metal cleat mounted on the side. Its tightly sealed lid could not contain the foul smell that emanated from the can.

The flies liked it, though. They weren’t as thick here in the middle of the river as they were on land, but the cannister—or rather its contents—drew them like a magnet. They swarmed around it, buzzing and droning, vainly seeking an entryway into the can.

Just as well, though. If the flies hadn’t been drawn to the cannister, they would have turned their attentions to the crew, biting them.

Sesto and Hamid had positioned themselves as far away from the metal cannister as it was possible to be while still staying in the boat compartment and not climbing on the foredeck.

The boat pilot and forward gunner occupied the bucket seats in the control cockpit. Sesto sat leaning back in the left-side pilot’s seat, bare feet perched up on top of the instrument panel’s console and planted on either side of the wheel. He, Hamid, and T’gai, the three crewmen, all went barefoot on board the launch, claiming that there was less risk of slipping and falling than if they wore shoes.

A shapeless canvas hat was pulled down covering Sesto’s eyes. Whether Sesto slept or not, Thurlow couldn’t tell, nor did he give a good damn.

Hamid sat in the right-side seat, swivel chair turned to the starboard facing the junction of the Kondo and Rada and the base camp on the point. He had a long, sharp-featured face, heavy-lidded eyes, and a wispy, goatish mustache and chin whiskers. He chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, wreathing his head in a halo of nasty-smelling smoke that seemed to have some success in keeping the insects away.

T’gai, the stern gunner, sat amidships with his back propped up against the portside bulwark. His legs were bent at the knees. Folded arms rested on top of his knees, pillowing his head.

Colonel Krentz stood at the starboard side, using a radio handset to communicate with various river- and land-based elements of the Nigerian troops. He conducted a running dialogue with varied bursts of squawking gibberish emanating from the handset.

Gibberish to Ward Thurlow, that is, who, despite a prolonged posting in Lagos, had failed to master more than a few phrases in any of the several major dialects spoken throughout the land. But that was why Krentz was here, to serve as interlocuter between Thurlow and the Nigerians.

Part of the reason, anyway. Krentz was a contract employee of MYRMEX, which, like Thurlow, had good reason for wanting the liquidation of the man called Kilroy, last surviving member of the DIA team that had been probing their mutually illicit and now demonstrably treasonous alliance.

Krentz was in his late forties, a few inches above medium height, compact and dense textured. He was balding, with a horseshoe ring of hair, and had a spade-shaped face with a dark goatee.

Krentz was a career mercenary, a South African Boer in self-imposed exile from his homeland due to several outstanding warrants for his arrest for conspiring to overthrow the government. For two decades and more he had plied his trade in a series of brushfire wars and revolutions throughout the continent.

His rank of “colonel” was one he’d awarded to himself; he’d never advanced higher than lieutenant in any conventional military force, Thurlow knew. As far as the CIA agent was concerned, Krentz could call himself anything he liked as long as he got the job done.

And quick.

Krentz was fluent in various major northern and southern dialects of the Nigerian tongue, enabling him to communicate with the troops now combing the swamplands for the fugitive.

Thurlow gave the orders and Krentz carried them out. Knowing next to nothing of military matters, Thurlow was content to leave strategy and tactics to Krentz, whose orders by now could be boiled down to the simple imperative:

Get Kilroy!

Krentz finished speaking and slipped the handset into a hip pocket of his cargo pants. He went to Thurlow, who stood leaning up against the portside gunwale.

“What news from the front?” Thurlow asked.

“All quiet,” Krentz said. He spoke English with an accent. “Nothing to report since that outbreak of shooting an hour ago.”

“Any details?”

“One of the riverboat patrols reported hearing some shots coming from somewhere at the western edge of the swamp.”

“That’s it? No follow-up?” Thurlow pressed.

“Nothing else to report. Some shots were heard, that’s all we know. It could have been Kilroy or it could have been some of the boys shooting at a croc.”

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